Want the best of VICE News straight to your inbox? Sign up here.
Twitter and Facebook have suspended hundreds of accounts they say are being used by the Chinese government in a coordinated campaign to undermine the Hong Kong protest movement.
The anti-protester content shared by the suspended accounts included memes comparing the pro-democracy protesters to ISIS fighters and depicting them as cockroaches. They also accused journalists of being in cahoots with the demonstrators, and claimed the protesters are being bankrolled by third parties.
“Are these people who smashed the [Legislative Council building] crazy or taking benefits?” read one tweet from @ctcc507, containing images of protesters storming Hong Kong’s government building last month. “We don’t want you radical people in Hong Kong. Just get out of here!”
Other posts claimed that the young woman who became a symbol of the protest movement after she was injured in the eye during clashes between police and protesters earlier this month, had actually been hurt through the actions of demonstrators. “Hong Kong needs the truth,” read one post. “Her eye was hurt by her accomplices. The police was helping her. SAD!”
Protesters claim the woman was injured as police fired beanbag rounds into the crowd, but police said Monday they still have not established how she was injured, and appealed for witnesses.
Twitter said it had identified 936 accounts which had been “attempting to sow political discord in Hong Kong” by attacking the legitimacy of the protest movement. Twitter deleted another 200,000 accounts associated with the network before they were substantially active, it said.
“We identified large clusters of accounts behaving in a coordinated manner to amplify messages related to the Hong Kong protests.” Twitter said in a statement. “Covert, manipulative behaviors have no place on our service.”
Facebook said that, after a tip off from Twitter, it removed seven pages, three groups, and five accounts that had acted in concert to disseminate anti-protester content. The pages had been posing as news organizations.
“They will shoot to kill with a slingshot,” read one Facebook post that was circulated by the network, featuring photographs of scenes from the protests. “They are the Hong Kong cockroaches.” No one has been killed during the protests.
"Although the people behind this activity attempted to conceal their identities, our investigation found links to individuals associated with the Chinese government,” said Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook's head of cybersecurity policy.
Twitter also said its investigations had uncovered “reliable evidence” that the effort was a coordinated state-backed operation. While Twitter is banned in mainland China, the accounts were accessed through virtual private networks, or VPNs, or unblocked IP addresses originating from China.
Speaking at a news conference in Beijing Tuesday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang declined to comment directly on the issue, but said that Chinese media used foreign social media to “tell China’s story” internationally.
“I don’t know why certain companies or peoples’ reaction is so strong,” he said. “What is happening in Hong Kong, and what the truth is, people will naturally have their own judgment.”
Twitter released archives detailing the complete tweet and user information relating to the suspended accounts, which researchers have begun trawling through. Renee DiResta, a Mozilla fellow in media, misinformation, and trust, tweeted that some of the accounts with high follower accounts were created a decade ago, and had moved through a range of languages and posting behaviors in that time, while other, flimsier accounts were only registered this year.
“A number of these accounts move through … many languages, switching after long breaks,” she tweeted. “Suggests at least some of the old/high-follower ones were purchased, or potentially rented.”
In contrast with Russia social media misinformation campaigns, she wrote, the Chinese efforts hadn’t involved “well-developed persona accounts that worked narratives or built relationships with influencers over those years.”
Twitter also announced Monday that it was banning advertising by state-controlled media organizations. While they would still “be free to continue to use Twitter to engage in public conversation,” they would not be able to promote their content using Twitter’s advertising service.
The move follows sharp recent criticism from users who were served ads from Chinese state-controlled media that depicted the Hong Kong protesters in a negative light. The advertising ban, to be enforced within 30 days, would apply to news media entities that are “either financially or editorially controlled by the state,” but not to taxpayer-funded public broadcasters with editorial independence.
Cover: A demonstrator wears an eye patch to show solidarity with a woman injured in her eye by a beanbag during a previous protest as she marches along a street in Hong Kong, Sunday, Aug. 18, 2019. Heavy rain fell on tens of thousands of umbrella-ready protesters Sunday as they started marching from a packed park in central Hong Kong, where mass pro-democracy demonstrations have become a regular weekend activity. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung)